I am a hostage negotiator and this is a recounting of an exercise in which I participated last year…
I arrived at the Army base at 0530 and was immediately put to work as the only moulage artist present. I was asked to create 5 wounded people, including myself. SGT Jefferson was the target of the shooter’s wrath. I was assigned the character of SGT Jefferson’s family member. I was placed in the room of SGT Washington’s (the shooter) initial breach and the only eyewitness to his first kill. I managed to run out ahead of him and fled to an office in an adjacent building where I hid under the desk. After going on a shooting spree, SGT Washington grabbed one male and one female hostage and barricaded himself along with them in the office next to the one wherein I was hiding. The female hostage was SGT Jefferson’s daughter, Leona. He had shot her in the shoulder/collarbone and the bullet had exited her body via her back. She was coughing up blood.
The MP SWAT team came through and cleared the entry room, hallway, and the office where I was hiding, without looking under the desk. SGT Washington loudly cursed them and told them to get out of the building, threatening to kill Leona Jefferson if they did not comply. He further stated that, if he heard anyone in the building after that, he would kill her. They SWAT team pulled out and surrounded the building, calling in aerial support. Four helicopters arrived, relaying the situation as seen from the air to the teams on the ground. From my position in the office next door, I could hear everything. Neither the shooter, nor the hostage, nor the police knew of my presence in the building. I could hear Leona coughing. I could hear the exchange between the shooter on the inside and the hostage negotiator with the bullhorn on the outside. I stayed in place for an hour. During this time, the shooter demanded medical supplies for Leona. The negotiator ordered a phone to be included in the supplies, all of which were delivered carefully and left for the shooter to retrieve. The shooter refused to use the phone they provided, believing it to be a bomb or a trap. He took the medical supplies and ordered his male hostage to attend to Leona. SGT Washington insisted that if he had anything to say, he would shout through the window.
The hostage negotiator tried for an hour to get some concessions from the shooter. SGT Washington was belligerent and completely uncooperative. There were windows in the office where I was hiding and the closest window was open with no screen. After an hour under the desk, I quietly came out and stayed below the window frame. I made my way to the open window and raised a hand to allow SWAT to see me. All guns swiveled in my direction. I raised both hands about the window frame, indicating the I was unarmed. I heard them exclaim that there was an unknown hostage inside. I had been given a cell phone for the exercise, so I held it up for them to see and then placed it in the open window and backed away. No one came close. I looked through the drawers in the desk that was functioning as my cover, and found paper and a pen. I wrote this note. “My name is Jefferson. The shooter does NOT know that I am in here. He says if he hears anyone in this building, he will kill Leona. Please help us. Leona is hurt. I can hear her coughing. Where is SGT Jefferson? Please get me out.” I made a paper airplane out of the note and flew it out the window as far as I could. It landed halfway to the SWAT team. All guns swiveled toward the paper airplane as the teams tried to identify what it was. After a few minutes, they were able to retrieve it.
Two SWAT team members approached my window from the opposite end of the building to the room where the shooter and hostages were barricaded. They asked me if I could get out and I told them that I was afraid to because if SGT Washington heard or saw me, he would kill Leona. The door to the office where I was hiding was wide open. They asked me if I could get out through the window. I said yes. They asked me to do that. I climbed halfway out and they grabbed me and got me out of the building and to safety. They took me to the incident command post where they gave me to both an EMT and a CID agent. The EMT worked on the laceration in my hand while the CID agent began interviewing me. I stayed at the incident command post for the remainder of the exercise. The building with the shooter and hostages was right behind me and I continued to hear the entire exchange, while the incident command team was right in front of me and I had the chance to observe them too. It was the perfect position for me specifically, as a hostage negotiator and as a multi-disciplined member of Incident Command Teams. I spent an hour with CID, answering all their questions and drawing diagrams of the two buildings and rooms. The information they gathered from me was streamlined and given to the incident commander, who began to formulate a more comprehensive picture. I continued to play my part, asking for SGT Jefferson and begging them to help Leona. The hostage negotiator began to appeal that Leona be released so that she could be taken to the hospital.
After CID got everything they needed from me, they told me that they would be contacting SGT Jefferson to come get me. Everyone’s attention was turned at this point to Mrs. Washington, who had arrived on scene and barricaded herself in her car, whereupon she pulled out a gun and held it to her own head. All non essential personnel evacuated the incident command post and headed out to Mrs. Washington’s car. I was told that SGT Jefferson had been found and that he would be picking me up. I waited for two hours, watching the command post work. When my CID agent came back, I pulled him aside and called an academic situation time out. I revealed that SGT Jefferson was dead. He had been the target of SGT Washington’s fury and was killed at the very beginning. He would not be picking me up. Then I got back into character. He reported that to the incident commander and I was interviewed again, whereupon they were able to learn more pertinent information. I continued to watch the command post at work, while listening to the ongoing negotiations and working with CID.
The hostage negotiator finally managed the secure Leona’s release. SGT Washington realized that there was no reason to allow her to die, so he released her and she was taken to the hospital. He was down to one hostage. He had no terms. He admitted loudly that he knew he had ended his career, his freedom, and perhaps even his life when he shot and killed SGT Jefferson. He was stalling out of fear. He began talking about the false allegations against him regarding his daughter and how he had bravely served his country through multiple deployments. He talked about how unfairly he had been treated by SGT Jefferson and how he deserved so much better than that. He began to talk about ending it all by suicide, unaware that his wife was outside in her car, threatening the same.
After another hour or two of ongoing negotiations, SGT Washington agreed to give up and come out. He was arrested and his remaining hostage was freed. The incident command post had been working for hours to secure a warrant to seize Mrs. Washington’s car, disable it, and download phone and GPS data from the vehicle’s systems. The authorization finally came through and they disabled her ability to get away, remotely accessing the data they needed. Two of the pieces of data they were trying to obtain were the location and contact information of SGT Washington’s parents.
At this point, the exercise transitioned from critical incident management to a crime scene investigation and I was released for the day. The CID battalion commander thanked me and told me that he looked forward to working with me in future exercises.
Lessons learned –
- Never declare a room clear until you have looked in every space big enough for a human to hide.
- Never give up hallway security once it is yours.
- Aerial support provides critical, real-time information.
- All the deceased must by positively identified before making any claims or promises to family members.
- When a hostage taker has no demands, it is nearly impossible to negotiate with him.
- The amount of information from just one interview can radically alter the course of the investigation and the flow of information at the incident command post.
- Hostage situations can rapidly escalate and secondary situations can arise.
- It is possible to have someone friendly on the inside and not know it.
- Ingenuity and clarity of thought are needed for self-rescue.
- The psychiatrist and chaplain were needed much earlier than they were called.
- Psychological and spiritual triage would have been warranted.
- There needs to be one, central person at the incident command post, responsible for collecting incoming data and getting it up on the board.
- One eyewitness’s report can make or break the case.
- The hostage negotiator can require backup if the negotiations are intense and protracted.
- It is still possible to appeal to the sympathy and humanity of a person, even after they have just killed an innocent man.
- Incident command posts are chaotic and incoming information needs to be streamlined. There need to be processes in place for utilizing all pertinent data in one, centralized way instead of allowing it to become stove piped by the incident command staff.
For some of you, every comment I made and every lesson I learned will make perfect sense to you. For others, you may not know the Incident Command System. However, no matter who you are, I hope that you will take this one lesson away with you:
Ingenuity and clarity of thought are needed for self-rescue.